What does an old city have ( and by old I mean at least one millenium) that can’t be beaten by claims of ‘modern technology’ made by a new one? And I agree with anyone who thinks that new cities have no right to claim anything. Period. But even in the best case scenario, for those more biased towards city plans and modern architecture ( just to qualify previous sentence, Barcelona is pretty modern, but it is also pretty old!), for a person living a simple non- adventurous life, what indeed can an old city do?
You could have lived in one ( like I did) for two decades and still not even come close to have seen all the historic sites. You could even have missed events on the street you took for at least half of that time, because while the historic sites may have the temerity of being located far out, given the tendency of old cities to sort of be an amoebic splatter seen from space, what excuse is there to not know of something you passed right by and never took the right turn ( or the left turn, forgive my continuing hang up with the left- right).
This trip to India I was gratefully humbled to find many such gems from the two cities ( okay, one of them is really quite big and has state- like properties) that are so infused in me that I can neither love nor hate them with any reasonable certainty. Dilli, undoubtedly the place I belong to and can never fully or even partially denounce and Kolkata, that has sort of hustled its way in through marriage and managed to stay through its undeniable, albeit mossy, charm. Kolkata was previously Calcutta and many Calcuttans retain the usage, including my husband. Both these cities are at least two thousand years old, and probably became inhabited in the B.C. era, Kolkata used to be the British capital of India before Dilli, both are politically active and centers of major mass- led movements, but on the surface, there is almost no similarity between the two cities. I also don’t think there is much in common at the core, but as you shall see, what do I know.
This is not a history of the two cities or comparing oranges to apples, this is for people who have close allegiance to these cities, and are about to be surprised. Or at least, about to hear about the surprises I received. Beginners are also welcome, if they can take it.
I will start with Kolkata. I was there for about 6 days this time, short enough time for most families and nearly criminal for a family already displeased with the daughter in law. I survived. Armed with a friend who has gone back home to Kolkata for an undefined period of time. One of her innumerable talents is to make friends with interesting profiles, especially belonging to people that are far enough for her to avoid actually meeting them for years as she just zips past their Facebook profiles ( what else did you think I meant?). One such friend of hers happens to be the owner and proprietor of Calcutta photo tours (http://www.calcuttaphototours.com/ ). To anyone who wants to see Kolkata, and doesn’t have an avenue, even if they have an avenue it can’t be better than this one and especially to all those Calcuttans out there who only go to restaurants and malls, you don’t know what you are missing, take at least one tour with Manjit!! He is the ideal, entertaining and knowledgeable tour guide and the reason it is a photo tour is that he will take your photos!! So you can actually concentrate on the real things. Of course, I did no such thing. But, it is always good to have such an option.
The tour we took was to see the areas where the non native ( read, non Indian origin, mostly) people settled around the time of British rule in Kolkata and most of these small pockets are near the center of the city. They exist to this day and may be the worse for wear, in some cases, but are radiant in the culture and identity that separates them from everyone else. Our first stop was Bow Barracks, which as the name suggests housed the army (British) and now has “Anglo- Indian” families, that is, where a person from British descent ( mainly, but it could perhaps be from any of the British colonies as they regularly had a lot of inter- colony migrants) had married a native, usually a native woman. Another feature of an old city is the transient nature of what and who are considered to be the ‘superiors’, so clearly, during the British rule these marriages would have slightly increased prestige as marrying into the ruler’s family would have. But before long, all the prestige and most of the honor was lost, as happens to most ruling classes, eventually. The older the inhabitants, the stronger the need to hold on to what was once the ‘golden period’, especially with limited mixing or promoted segregation- the only avenue to remain distinct and proud of a unique ancestry, but sure to result in ostracization by the natives.
Today, the bow barracks still houses progeny from these Eurasian families, mostly christian. They are constantly under legal attack by the government as they are, technically, illegally occupying the area, more so, because the conditions are far from safe as almost no renovations have been made to the buildings to keep them safe. The residents don’t have their own water supply in some of the buildings and none of the apartments has their own toilets or bathrooms. Manjit will tell you this and more!! I will only mention that in many houses the water is still delivered in big bags of canvas and there are deliveries of goat milk, fresh, literally. Most people in Kolkata know that the anglo indians live somewhere in the city, most middle class Indians know that they live in Kolkata, but the two Calcuttans with me had never been there, and my father and a grand uncle have also never been there ( my grand uncle has lived in Kolkata most of his life, and is close to 79, my father has visited Kolkata very often is is known to walk around every place he visits till he feels he knows it well).
In the same tour we saw the Bengali Buddhist temple ( although for clarification purposes, Buddhism started in India and migrated outwards, but I think the Bengali Buddhists in India came from Bangladesh, although they are original Buddhists who speak Bengali) , the Parsi place of worship in Kolkata – that just celebrated its centenary with a small community of about 600 people in total, a synagogue – there are only about 25 Jews in Kolkata, most of them too old to come to the synagogue and the two synagogues we saw (one from outside) are usually closed. I should mention here that Kolkata has about 4.5 million residents, so if there was a haystack, these communities would be very hard to find. Instead, it is just a labyrinth where the more you get lost, the more you see.
The first china town in Kolkata, where we met Stella- a shop owner selling inscrutable things (except candy, that I could make out) whose grandfather had come to India. She is the only one of her family who is still there. I think the original inhabitants of this place are quite scarce these days. We saw old streets which sell electronics of all kinds, including fancy coffee makers, or lights and party decorations ( Balloon street). A great three hours, but not meant for people who prefer clean streets or have a fear of crossing roads within 2cm of a bus or car or both with three hand driven rickshaws and perhaps even a cow.
Just that trip would have made this year’s, most unnatural, second trip to India worth it. But it seems, as a pay back to a terrible year in most counts, I was going to get a few more treats. In Delhi, my mom took me to a silk exhibition. Now, there is certainly no dearth of ‘Melas’ is Delhi. Melas or fairs are so common, we have vast grounds just to host the trade fairs, the book fairs and all kinds of other fairs. But this one, was in Bikajikama Place – that is on the road that I took to go to school, for years. Even if I was in a bus most of the time, I went to college taking that route too!!! Yet, I never knew of the stores that sold handloom silk in the place and had never ever heard of the Silk Exhibition. There was silk of every kind, all handloom and often embroidered coming straight from the weavers with as little mediator interference as possible. So, you are not buying the scarf from the one who made it, but he is probably the brother. It was beautiful and I even went again. My one weakness are stoles and scarves and I cannot have enough of them. There were sarees as well. Dupiar, Eddi, Kota, Mutka, Chanderi and even Khadi silks ( and many others I don’t know) from various parts of India, Bhagalpur, Kashmir, West Bengal, Assam, Madhya Pradesh to name a few. There were patterns that may look like prints, but are actually hand woven.
It’s true that I am all but ignorant of most of the cultural activities in Delhi, of which there are literally thousands every month, but I still recommend this exhibition for the cultured soul, to get out of their comfort zone and immerse one of the outcomes of culture- traditional handloom..
The next place I visited was Chandni Chowk, and yes, every tourist to Delhi has probably been there. But remember, this is for the Delhiite, like me, who has always known how to avoid Chandni Chowk and the Paranthe wali gali. Thanks to my dear cousin, and Delhi’s Metro, I finally saw one of the oldest and most charming of all markets in Delhi ( old Delhi), with narrow streets ( I should totally have a post just on narrow streets in India) lined with all kinds of garments and ostentatious embellishments for the traditional Indian outfits. The true surprise here was a whole street lined on both sides with borders – Kinari Bazar kinara being hindi for ‘border or side’ or ‘ends’ in this case of kurtas or shirts. These are embroidered with astonishing colors, gold threads, stones, wooden beads, feathers… You can get a whole piece already cut in the shape of the neck, like a necklace, but to be stitched on to a kurta or a shirt.
The colors, the various types of people selling the colors, and the people buying them. All sorts of subsidiary shops and activities that have arisen given the popularity of the market, like people selling lemons and ginger in front of a saree stores ( I should say that the ginger was of very high quality), beggars with painted faces that only ask for tips from shop owners, possibly some kind of an omen or for good luck. And hidden in between, on the left if you are facing a particular direction ( ha ha), right by the men’s public toilet ( so that you definitely don’t waste your breath around the area and are most likely to miss it) is a lovely street with old fashioned houses. Possibly hundreds of years old, with beautifully carved wooden doors and Mughal/persian architecture, dated approx 18th century, the Naughara Lane, oft visited by other walking tours, I saw, but was just pure serendipity for me! Its entrance is a small stone opening, about 6 ft. I plan to upload some of the photos in another post dedicated to the stories ‘doors’ can tell or hide.There is an office, which we mistook for an antique store, with no walls at the entrance. There were antique chairs, telephones, statues and paintings filled to the brim in that office and while we went in and later came out embarrassed, you can still see all of it from the street itself!
I finally had the famous paranthe from one small restaurant at the uber famous Paranthe Wali gali. Shared with some British tourists, who clearly know where to eat!! I had mirchi ( green chilly pepper) parantha, my sister had lemon parantha, they even had banana parantha ( which the British kid and his mom had) and karela, bhindi, muli parantha. The squash ( kaddu) sabzi was pure delight!
A well worth 45 min metro ride. I say. While I think there must be some song most apt for Kolkata, I don’t know of one ( do tell), but A.R. Rehman’s: Ye Dilli Hain mere yaar, bas ishq mohobbat pyaar…. ( Dilli 6) is truly, apt for the Dilli we all want to see, the Dilli that must exist beneath the layers of apathy, frustration, anger and misery. Saddi Dilli.
So, yes, the older the city, the more endless its charm. Mmm, is it possible to me ‘more’ endless? I suppose not, if you buy one 9 m border from Kinari Bazaar- but what if you joined all of the ones being sold and continually made? That’s Dilli and Kolkata, miles of distinctive borders that we build and I am working on joining together to get something of a whole.